Dying empires fight hard to control the threats surrounding them. Like wounded beasts, they lash out at anything within their reach.
So it was that, amidst a century of decline, the Roman emperor Decius decided to end the Christian problem once and for all. He required everyone in the empire to pay a one-time public tribute to a Roman god.
Decius set up a distribution system for the tributes so that citizens and non could walk up to a table in a marketplace and offer a libation to the god of their choice, free of charge.
“Then you’d get a little certificate with your name on it saying that you had been seen making a sacrifice to the gods, signed by official witnesses.[^1]”
Did the early Christians eschew this act of apotacy? Many did, but many did not. Many Christians reasoned that the “sacrifice” was such a small token, God wouldn’t really mind. They had families to care for and businesses to run, and people dependent on them. It would be silly, they thought, to be beheaded or thrown to the lions over such a silly little thing.
But many Christians refused and were killed for their defiance. Many others fled into the country to spare themselves the choice.
What were the signs of decline in Rome in the middle of the third century? For one, emperors were being deposed at an alarming rate. One man would rise with the help of others only to be murdered by one of those who helped him ascend. Illegitimate emperors could not expect their “friends” to respect their offices or their lives.
Barbarians were sacking the empire and Rome itself. An emperor who cannot defend his empire’s or even his city’s borders could not hope to retain the allegiance and loyalty of his people.
A plague, smallpox perhaps, wiped out up to one-third of the population. Again, the emperor and his Roman gods seemed helpless and impotent against the plague.
But the Christians cared for the sick and the dying, even at the risk of their own lives. The Christians stood up to the barbarians even when the vaunted Roman legions fled in terror. The Christians held the empire together when the pagans could not.
Thus, during Decius’s persecutions and a plague that killed a third of the population, Christianity grew in absolute numbers. The empire succumbed to the Kingdom.
Jump ahead, now, 2,000 years to another empire showing signs of decline. America has its first provably illegitimate dictator. A plague supposed to last 15 days if we followed the science lingers more than a year later, though it can hardly be called devastating. (Fewer people died of all causes in the year of Coronavirus than in the previous year, adjusted for population growth.) You have to wonder if, knowing Biden is illegitimate, his vice president will let him live out his four-year term.
Just as Decius tried to kill Christianity with a pagan passport, America’s dictators want us to offer a public sacrifice to their pharmaceutical god. They, too, have set up tribute stations in every city and town for our convenience and offered the libation at no cost. Our sacrifice to this god of science will earn us a certificate of apostasy signed by official witnesses that will allow us to provide for our families and live normal lives.
But at what cost?
The early Church leaders were appalled that so many Christians, without coercion, paid their tribute and lost their souls. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, wrote:
May were laid low without meeting the enemy. They didn’t even give themselves the chance to look ike they weren’t willing to sacrifice to the idols. They ran on their own to the marketplace. They rushed toward death of their own free will.
As I read this early story in Mark Aquilina’s excellent history, The Church and the Roman Empire (Ave Maria Press), I was struck by the parallels between Cyrpian’s time and our own.
It’s not a leap to say that America’s pagan gods are science and entertainers. In fact, “I believe in science” has become shorthand for saying, “thus, I refute your ‘God’ and religion.”
Like all the ancient gods, America’s new god demands sacrifice and tribute. This god is not a jealous god, not like the God of the Torah. You may believe whatever you wish. But you must believe in and sacrifice to the American god of science, whether there’s anything scientific about him at all.
Yesterday, I wrote about the four archetypes of tyrannical societies. In Aquilina’s history, we see them in action, but but Aquilina supplies something that I did not: what happens after the sacrifice.
Most of the Christians who paid tribute to the Roman gods soon regretted their apostasy and sought reconciliation with the Church. A great debate took place among the episcopacy over whether or not the Church could reconcile with such grave sinners.
Cyprian argued for reconciliation after a protracted penance. Worshipping an idol was, after all, the gravest sin short of sins against the Holy Spirit, for idolatry is the very first prohibition in the Ten Commandments. This is why the horrific Pachamama scandal deserves our scorn, as I wrote about at the time. (See Amazonian Pandamonium)
Eventually, the Church sided with Cyprian. Christians were allowed to make a severe penance and return to communion with Christ’s Bride.
What does the future hold for Christians who refuse to sacrifice to the American gods? We don’t know. But if history is any guide, we can assume our choice will be as stark as that of our third-century brothers and sisters. (See This Is What Will Happen.) If so, we should remember the lessons of Decius’s plot.
Pray for strength and discernment. Know that forgiveness is possible. But do not rush to the death of your own free will. And pray that I do not become weak and fall before the fight. History is there as a warning. Unlike the early Christians, we cannot say we didn’t see it coming.
[^1]: Aquilina, Mark, 2019, The Church and the Roman Empire, Ave Maria Press